Character, Devonta Freeman

Emily Kaplan, Sports Illustrated (

Freeman’s explosion onto the NFL scene in the last three weeks—made possible when starter Tevin Coleman fractured a rib in Week 2—is all the more notable because of what a complete back he’s been in the Atlanta system. In the last three games, he’s gained 193, 149 and 197 rushing-receiving yards. And he rarely comes out of the game, unlike some backs who leave the field on third down. “He has so much fight in him” said coach Dan Quinn. “He can’t back off, anything.”

But Freeman’s story doesn’t end there. The football part of his life is good enough. The off-field part might be better.

After afternoon home games, on Tuesday off-days, and occasionally at the team hotel, Freeman logs onto his laptop and posts 150-word discussion board commentary on the causes, effects and curse of stereotyping and social perception.

Freeman is currently enrolled in two online courses at Florida State: Social Psychology of Groups and Intro to World Cities. Upon taking his finals—sometime around Week 13—he will be six credits away from the degree he postponed when declaring early for the 2014 draft. “Most guys are daunted when see they still need 18 credits,” LaToya Williams, his Florida State academic advisor, said this week. “They put it off until after they’re done playing. Not Devonta. He said, ‘OK, let’s begin chipping away.’ ”

Freeman contacted Williams during his rookie NFL season, and has taken courses each semester since—including this summer. Freeman figured he managed the workload while he was a student-athlete. Why not now when he has even more time?

“Wait, so he’s currently taking classes?” Coleman said this week. “Like during the season?”

“I had no idea,” said guard James Stone.

“I knew,” said Quinn, “But only because somebody told me. It’s just so Devonta. He doesn’t want to call attention to himself, he just wants to compete. Throughout his life he has had to overcome so much, but never found excuses, just tackled everything with tremendous grit. Then all of the sudden you have a 23-year-old who is ready to take on the world.”

In 2009, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher visited Miami Central High School to scout Brandon Gainer, a hot running back prospect. Gainer wasn’t at practice, instead taking night classes to get in good academic standing. Fisher stayed anyway, and couldn’t take his eyes off the undersized junior blazing through drills. He was the most passionate player on the field.

Freeman, at the time, was a zero-star recruit, not even listed on any scouting services.

“I walked up to the coach,” Fisher said this week, “and said, ‘That young tailback? He’s better than the one you’re starting.’ ”

Fisher offered Freeman a scholarship that summer— “everyone thought we were crazy,” Fisher said—and when Freeman broke out for 2,208 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior, Auburn and Florida and Miami, his childhood dream college, came recruiting.

Freeman remained loyal, and just as intense. In Tallahassee, it was common for Freeman to frequent Fishers’ office after practice. Once, the running back was somber, incessantly apologizing for not picking up a block—in the first 10 minutes of practice, even though he played flawlessly for the next hour. “I am so, so, so sorry,” Freeman said. “That will never happen again.”

Fisher’s only response: “I know.” (“I mean, I felt bad anytime I got on a kid like that,” the coach said. “He just cared so much.”)

Williams, the academic advisor, initially thought Freeman would be a problem-student because it took her nearly two weeks to get in touch with him when she was first hired. They played phone tag, text-tag, and she figured Freeman might be a flake. Turns out, Freeman was in the training facility, or class—doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing, just didn’t always have his phone handy.

In Atlanta, Freeman stays equally busy. On Monday, he asked Quinn if he can do boxing drills, one of his favorite coordination exercises, after practice. He kept a reporter waiting until 6 p.m. on Tuesday—five hours after media availability—because besides the walk-through and position meeting, he also wanted to go in the cold tub, and the hot tub, and get a massage, and meet a coach one more time.

“I don’t want to be average,” he said. “I don’t want to play just to collect the check every week—actually, I don’t even know how often we get paid because I don’t pay attention to it. The point is, I love football, and I want to be the best at football, and if there’s anything I can do to get my body right and be better I’m going to do it.”

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